Seeking evidence in the attic

Saturday, July 29, 2006
Joe Wolz took a break from searching in the heat of the Thebes Courthouse attic on Friday. Wolz, a history graduate student, as well as Al Hulstedt and Dr. Mary McGuire searched the attic for 160-year-old carvings by the original builders of the courthouse. (Aaron Eisenhauer)

An SIU professor and two students hope to learn more about the Thebes Courthouse's architect.

THEBES, Ill. -- For two students and a professor from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, opening up a dusty attic was nothing short of a glimpse back in time.

The attic of the Thebes Courthouse had likely not been opened since 1995, when rain and wind damage from the Mississippi River flood made repairs necessary. The courthouse itself, completed in 1848, was only reopened to the public full time this spring.

Neither the students, who are taking a summer course in historic preservation, nor the professor knew whether the space contained old documents, artifacts or engravings.

"We really had no idea what to expect," said Dr. Mary McGuire, a professor of history at SIUC. She said the attic has probably seen several uses over the years.

McGuire said she hoped to find further evidence of the identity of the courthouse's architect. Historians believe his last name was Barkhausen, but little more is known about the man. McGuire hoped that she might find his full name carved on the roof's ridgepole, the central beam the upper ends of rafters are attached to.

"It was typical to have a ridgepole ceremony at the completion of the project where those involved would carve their names," she said.

Reaching the site required an 18-foot climb up an extension ladder and a shimmy through a tiny hatch. Initially, said group members, there wasn't much to see -- dust, some wasps, bird skeletons. On some of the beams were faint engravings of X's and triangles, likely carved by the original carpenters.

But as the group was about to leave, light slanted through the windows at just the right angle and revealed the neatly carved number "1845" on one of the floor beams. That was the date construction started on the courthouse.

"Honest to God, it was just dumb luck," McGuire said of the finding. "To find this date is to find a mark left by the original builder, the person who put up that courthouse. So it's just fabulous, we are just giddy right now. I'm almost on the verge of tears."

McGuire said she and the students will return next week with floodlamps to search for the engraved names. She believes if the starting date is carved, the completion date along with the names must be there. McGuire will also attempt to contact workers who helped renovate the courthouse in the mid-1970s because they may know where other engravings are.

"If we find those names, you'll hear me hollering all the way in Cape Girardeau," she said.

Al Hulstedt, 22, is an architecture major and one of the two students participating in the project. He said locating the original framework is difficult because some of the beams have been substituted with newer ones and others have been recycled and moved around.

"You can tell which are original beams because they have marks indicating they're hand-hewn and they're held in place by hand-forged nails," said Hulstedt.

"I do a lot of work in construction," said history graduate student Joe Wolz. "... So thinking about the way this was built and all the different repairs to the building is very interesting for me. This is why I do history."

The students filmed the project and will present their findings and show the film next Friday at the courthouse.

335-6611, extension 245

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